To Kill A Mockingbird – Review

Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Photo Johan Persson
Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Photos Johan Persson

This is proving a bit of a stand out week. Last night I watched an exciting stage adaptation of a favourite thriller, Rebecca, and tonight enjoyed a second literary treat.

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird made an everlasting impression when I studied it at school way back in the mists of time. My copy of it remains, to this day, dog-eared and well thumbed, on my bookshelves.

Regents Park Open Air Theatre came up with an enthralling stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel’s in 2013 and it was such a success that it was revived last year before going out on tour.

Tonight it opened at Milton Keynes Theatre and the story about social and racial injustice, old fashioned bigotry and a fight for civil rights, is both shocking and absorbing in equal measures.

Zackary Momoh (Tom Robinson). Photo Johan Persson
Zackary Momoh as Tom Robinson

It can be hard for British audiences to fully understand the plight of the black man in America’s Deep South.

The story is set in the 1930s when segregation was the norm, lynch mobs were seen to dispense their own justice, and black and white folk never associated.

The narration of tomboy, Scout Finch, gives us life in the fictional Maycomb County, Alabama, where her widowed lawyer father, the honourable and decent Atticus, is appointed to defend a black man.

Tom Robinson has been accused of beating and raping white trash, Mayella Ewell and the evidence is overwhelming.

Director Timothy Sheader doesn’t spare us the N Word which is used frequently. He also turns stage production on its head by having the cast read straight from Harper Lee’s book.

Initially I wondered why I didn’t just stay at home and read the book myself but it’s an engrossing technique that blends storytelling – literally – with performance. Pretty soon it has you hooked.

I know I’m too old for bedtime stories but this is one which had me glued to my seat from the off.

Daniel Betts delivers a solid, quietly restrained, performance as the civil rights lawyer who is about the nearest thing there is to the epitome of an all-American hero.

This Atticus Finch is upright, trustworthy, inspirational and moral. He never raises his voice, gets physical or emotional, but his closing speech, in the fight to save Robinson from the hangman’s noose, had the audience paying rapt attention.

Zackary Momoh, as Robinson, had the weight of an entire nation’s oppression in his downcast eyes as he fought for his life. It is a powerful and moving performance.

This is a superb ensemble production. The three children involved in the drama, Scout, her older brother Jem and their friend Dill, were beautifully played tonight by Rosie Boore, Billy Price and Milo Panni respectively.

Bob Ewell (Ryan Pope), the rape victim’s vile, prejudiced and abusive father, is a thoroughly shocking character.

Seeing the townsfolk through Scout’s eyes does limit their depth and some come across as one-dimensional stereotypes that we’ve becomes used to seeing in any number of films about the Deep South.

But the court scenes hold your attention. It is impossible to hear the speeches and not be filled with disgust at the shameful prejudice.

Utterly compelling and imaginatively told, To Kill A Mockingbird runs at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday.

*****stars.

Remaining 2015 tour dates

The Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, 17–21 March
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, 24 March–4 April
Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 14–18 April
Theatre Royal, Newcastle, 20–25 April
Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 27 April–2 May
Richmond Theatre, 12–16 May
The Lowry, Salford, 19–23 May.

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